In 1585, Queen Elizabeth is well into her 50-year reign and still wrestling with the conflict that her Protestant beliefs have engendered with the rest of the Catholic world—a schism that has her branded by many as a heretic. Rumors of plots against her crown are everywhere and the faithful Sir Francis Walsingham is determined to ferret out the culprits and crush them. Most of these rumors center around Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Stuart, a Catholic who many believe God intends for the throne of England. To such ends, King Philip of Spain sends a team of assassins to infiltrate the queen's court.
The so-called Virgin Queen must also contend with demands that she marry and produce an heir. Noble prospects abound, but no man earns her interest until the dashing adventurer Walter Raleigh arrives with gifts of potatoes and tobacco from the new world. This heroic, charming man recounts great tales of his travels and arouses dreams of adventure and a longing for love in the royal. Things that a queen may not pursue. But desires that Elizabeth cannot let go of.
Elizabeth sacrifices her desire to experience many of life's joys to shoulder the duty and responsibility of ruling and protecting her people. When it's suggested that she deal more harshly with potential Catholic enemies in England, the queen replies, "I will not punish people for their beliefs, only for their deeds."
Sir Walter Raleigh puts his life on the line to defend England. (As do a number of brave men greatly outnumbered by the Spanish fleet.) And when Raleigh discovers that Queen Elizabeth's lady in waiting, Bess, is carrying his child, he marries her. Sir Francis Walsingham can be a ruthless man, but he is devoted to protecting his queen even if it means imprisoning his own brother.
The movie's main conflict is centered on the strain between Catholics and Protestants. King Philip rants, "England is enslaved to the Devil. We must set her free." Of Queen Elizabeth he asks, "Why do you lead your people to hell?" Later, he intones, "God has abandoned her." Elizabeth's counter? "By God, England will not fall while I am queen!"
Elizabeth prays several times, but also—hoping for a look into her future, both politically and personally—she approaches an astrologer who gives a broad reading of the stars that indicates a conflict between mighty nations. When pressed for more detail he says, "This is more an art than a science," and "I am no prophet, I see little more than the shadows of ghosts."
The queen prays for Raleigh and says, "Please forgive him, as I too long to be forgiven." Francis Walsingham's brother prays before their meal, beginning, "Oh Lord, provider of all things ..."
[Spoiler Warning] When the Spanish armada is crushed, King Philip prays. He concludes that the attack was not God's will and asks that God forgive him of his pride. Similarly, when condemned, Mary Stuart says, "If I die, I'll die as I lived—as a queen, trusting in the mercy of God." She carries a Bible and forgives her executioner. Rallying her troops, Elizabeth tells them that at the end of the day of battle, "We'll meet again in heaven or on the field of victory."
Throughout the film, other people are also seen praying for God's mercy and strength to help them through life's difficulties. A variety of crosses and other religious symbols are seen. And a man quotes Matthew 16:25.
Examining her reflection, Elizabeth lets her nightgown slip off her shoulders (symbolically shedding her queenly vestiges) and stands before the mirror as simply a woman. (From a distance, we see a quick, fully nude rear shot.) Raleigh and Bess kiss amorously and he runs his fingers lightly down the front of her dress. She, in turn, loosens the ribbons on her bodice. Several male and female dancers are covered in body paint and partially nude from the waist up. A number of women wear gowns that reveal cleavage. At her request, Raleigh gently kisses Elizabeth.
We see, after the fact, several men who Sir Francis Walsingham has tortured for vital information. One is in an iron maiden device that has plunged spikes into his face and skin. A bloodied man is hanged. (We see his feet dangling.) Another is kicked and then shot dead. A woman is beheaded. (We see her with her head on the block and the executioner swinging the blade.)
Naval war scenes depict cannon fire, explosions and dead men. A sailor drags himself across the deck with a bloody stump for one leg. An assassin points a musket at Queen Elizabeth and pulls the trigger.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The queen and Bess smoke (or at least try to smoke) some of Raleigh's tobacco. Walsingham has wine with his dinner.
To lift a sweeping saga from the pages of history and capture it in two hours worth of screen time is a difficult task. Making sure that the tale is entertaining and not dry and dusty like the books it's taken from can be daunting. Running all that through the gamut of extensive poking and prodding by the Hollywood movie machine and still ending up with emotionally moving characters and cinematic moments of beauty is well-nigh impossible. But that's exactly what the creators of Elizabeth: The Golden Age have done.
Credit goes, in no small part, to Cate Blanchett, who in 1998 originated the role of the girl-who-must-become-queen in Elizabeth. (She earned an Academy Award nomination for it.) Her current portrayal of the now mature monarch—a woman who bears the weight of both a crown and a longing heart—is brilliant and riveting. But she's not alone. Most of the film's performances are excellent, particularly Clive Owen's as Sir Walter Raleigh and Samantha Morton's in the short but laser-focused role of Mary, Queen of Scots. You see something here that's rarely seen in today's make-a-sequel-and-make-a-buck movie world: actors actually acting—and being given the time to do so, too.
That's not to say that Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a perfect film. There are moments when the enormous list of characters can seem hard to keep up with. And times when the struggle between the Protestant English (the good guys) and the Spanish Catholics (the bad guys) can feel stale, too cut-and-dried to be trusted. And CGI sea battles fall short of the Warner Bros. spectacles of years gone by.
Of more practical weight are these considerations: The film alludes to offscreen premarital sex and features onscreen (rear) nudity. The aftereffects of torture are woven into the story, as are flashes of war-torn bloodletting.
But while director Shekhar Kapur, who also helmed the first Elizabeth, impeccably recaptures the authentic atmosphere and grandeur of his '98 film, he also takes a big step back from the sexuality that earned it an R rating. That goes a long way toward allowing this thought-provoking tale of intrigue and bravery—that speaks of faith, self-sacrifice and devotion—to soar.